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Mark of the Red Death
By David Thomson
Sight and Sound, Autumn 1980

Michael Powell's critical reputation has probably never stood higher. This most enigmatic and idiosyncratic of British filmmakers was interviewed for Sight and Sound in 1979, shortly after the National Film Theatre staged a major retrospective of his work and the BFI published the monograph Powell, Pressburger and Others. The interview concentrated on Powell's wartime films.

Here David Thomson writes about Peeping Tom, now twenty years old, received with outrage at the time of its first release, and still the most controversial and perplexing of Powell's films, even though critical opinion has shifted from the 1960 reaction, when Dilys Powell called it 'essentially vicious', Caroline Lejeune 'this beastly film', Alexander Walker 'loathsome', and George Stonier worried that 'anyone at all can entertain this muck.'

In Peeping Tom, Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a young man who has a small job in films and in his spare time takes pornographic pictures for a newsagent. Mark's father had used his own child as a guinea-pig for experiments in the study of fear. Grownup, Mark becomes a murderer of women, fascinated with photographing the victim's moment of terror. He has a tentative relationship with Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) a girl who with her blind mother rents a flat in his house. Accidentally, Helen sees the film of one of Mark's victims, killed in a deserted film studio. Eventually and inevitably, Mark makes his last film record - of his own suicide.

Peeping Tom has no trace of thriller or mystery: even the murders committed by its central character, Mark Lewis, are as purposeless as art. The apparatus of killings, clues and coppers takes second place to the circling machinery that carries film and the accompaniment of twin pianos. Within the Sunday papers melodrama, there is a tenderly observed process of destructive fulfilment. Among movie suicides, this one is earned and rapturous. The killer nearly succeeds in giving himself away when pencils slip from his pocket; Michael Powell had them made three feet long and filmed their spill in slowed motion so that the giveaway would loom large. So much more imaginative than the police, the murderer plots his own dead end, designs and directs it, and then kindly saves the trouble of courts, hangmen or shrinks; he does not want anyone else to touch him.

Mark Lewis' demure, anonymous tidiness is the mark of the timid tenderness he feels for himself. Who put the idea of tenderness in our heads? Why, Michael Powell himself ('A very tender film, a very nice one,' he has been quoted as saying), slyly adding to his own greatest controversy - like a wizard dropping a cocktail cherry in a spell.

It fits the film's gentle fostering of a lonely man's lethal art. Peeping Tom is as intricate, fastidious and unbalanced as a home movie. Mark Lewis is a fervent spectator who reaches the crisis of needing to be seen. It is his only way of establishing existence and authorship and it is far more pressing than the fanciful psychosis that is supposed to victimise him He is an artist, and in Powell's eyes that self-consuming glory overshadows any question of sickness or health.

Mark Lewis is a Romantic extremist who amuses himself by seeming modest and humdrum. His art must be unseen and unknown if he is to go on producing it. But his furtive regime of art for art's sake is broken apart by Mark's emerging from his own chrysalis. His wings are his film show. But it is so much a farewell, confessional appearance, so driven by the longing to be recognised, how can we not wonder about it as a personal disclosure - no matter how mischievously indirect - by its director? Yet just as a Peeping Tom must remain clandestine, so even the portrait offered in Peeping Tom is teasingly oblique. The last thing it wants is understanding: the Romantic artist would prefer to be recognised while remaining mysterious. When a wizard is identified, his strangeness is confirmed.

There have been several attempts to retrieve Peeping Tom from its original London debacle - by critics, notably Ian Johnson in 1963 and Jean-Paul Torok in 1960, and by such as Martin Scorsese who assisted the film's re-release in America. They have placed it in the body of Powell's work, assessed it as a metaphor for cinema and voyeurism, revelled in its sardonic playfulness, called it great as love story, tragedy and salutary verdict on the traps of seeing and being seen. In America, in 1979-80, the film was occasionally picketed by feminists disturbed by a disdain they read as hostility. Elsewhere, it was watched with fascination and chills: it never set out to be a comfortable picture, and rescue of the movie does it no credit by awarding it the sanitary status of a masterpiece.

The picture sustains so many charges that, while we are about it, we might as well retain the 1960 reaction: 'The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer' (the less than reactionary Derek Hill). That shuddering revulsion is no more off the mark, and no less instructive, than Susan Sontag's intellectual allegiance: 'The movie assumes connections between impotence and aggression, professionalised looking and cruelty, which point to the central fantasy connected with the camera.'

Late in 1979, I showed Susan Sontag's book On Photography, from which this quotation comes, to Powell. He told me he had not seen it before, and I think he read its commentary with the same vague form of pleasure and indifference. Michael Powell is in the next office while I am writing this: how handy, if I want to consult him on details, and how deluding. It is a rare frustration to admire Peeping Tom and to be with its director. There are things I have learned about the making of the film, or titbits he has dropped in my path, and they may add to your sense of the film. But it is most instructive to see Powell's remoteness from anything as mundane as critical understanding.

Powell lives in a different house - even if he is in the next room. Who can forget the startling shift in awareness in Peeping Tom when we learn that its shyest occupant actually owns the house? Mark's upstairs flat is an austerely separate domain. More ominous than the floor above in John Gabriel Borkman, or the cellar in Psycho, it represents the imagination lurking behind every sociable countenance.

Michael Powell is seventy-five, and a picture of health. He can spread enormous charm and vitality; or he can be absent-minded and cavalier. We have been colleagues, at Dartmouth College, and most of the time we think of each other as friends. I believe he is Britain's most remarkable director; I shock him by putting him so far above Hitchcock. But he is as unknowable as anyone I have ever met, and unshakeable in his determination to remain in the upstairs flat.

Peeping Tom had its origins in a film on the life of Freud; yet Powell is as unimpressed by clinical analysis as Nabokov was. Powell was in his fifties, only lately parted from Emeric Pressburger, his Hungarian collaborator. In 1956, he terminated a partnership that had begun in 1939 with The Spy in Black. The famous logo for the Archers - with the arrow smacking into the bull's eye - had had Powell and Pressburger sharing production, direction and writing. But Pressburger had far less to do with the directing, and much more responsibility for the script. It is hard to think of another screenwriting career so pledged to one director. Before 1939, Pressburger had accumulated several credits on the continent. But after meeting Powell, his freelance range shrank. In 1953, he wrote, produced and directed an unremarkable film, Twice Upon a Time, and in 1957 he wrote and produced Miracle in Soho, with Julian Amyes directing. Otherwise, since retirement, he has had only one practising credit, the writing on Powell's 1972 children's film The Boy Who Turned Yellow, although his 1961 novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, was filmed as Behold a Pale Horse.

There was never a personal breakdown. They have remained friends, and they are now co-consultants on a planned Broadway musical of The Red Shoes. But why did the partnership end, and what were the effects on Powell? He admits that he was instrumental in the change. They had not had a hit since The Red Shoes, and even that success came slowly and never fully vanquished Rank's bewilderment. Against the grain of austerity, they followed a wayward line: Gone to Earth (unsatisfactory to Selznick); The Elusive Pimpernel (scorned by Goldwyn); The Tales of Hoffmann (an affront to nearly everyone); and Oh, Rosalinda! (which Powell himself doubted all along). The Battle of the River Plate did better, but it illustrates Powell's whimsical offhandedness that the couple only undertook it to justify a visit to the Mar Del Plata festival. Its move towards realism irked Powell and showed a widening gulf in taste between the two men.

Powell had never concealed his feelings towards 'the curse of naturalism' or his opinion of the cautious and philistine movie industry. His work was serenely out of touch and unprofitable, and yet he could entertain plans of having Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas collaborate on pictures in the iridescent vein of Tales of Hoffmann - flamboyant amalgams of music, verse, colour, dance and decor, Art in Powell's mind, but fevered artiness to many others. Michael Powell is pledged to the idea of Art, unswervingly fauve, and impulsive in his tastes, but clipped and conservative in his own bearing. Ruskin while delving in what Raymond Durgnat has called 'the visual culture of Ye Olde Junke Shoppe'. His colour is never cool or controlled; it vibrates with the gleeful unruliness of a Gulley Jimson blowing raspberries at Mondrian. Powell often worked in coloured film noir (that's what Scorsese loves), with the shadows suffused by purple, pink and blue. His genius is a matter of having no restraining sense of how others see him. And, of course, the record of tasteful colour in movies is very dull.

If this attitude made him less than his own best negotiator, then perhaps Pressburger was a necessary go-between and producer. Without him, Powell has had not one success and not one movie that looks anything but ill-advised. In other words, the separation may have left Powell acutely uncertain about his future. That would only push him into the most idiosyncratic and perilous ventures.

Between the end of the partnership and Peeping Tom, Powell made Ill Met by Moonlight, a war picture, debonair and fierce by turns, [According to Powell, Pressburger began that script and wanted a realism of which Powell despaired.] and an addition to his gallery of prickly-fond Anglo-German relationships, and Honeymoon, a paella of flashy dance and tourist Espana, with Massine and Antonio. He scripted both films himself, and cannot have been reassured about anything, least of all the latest wave of realism in England. He had survived Grierson, ignored wartime utility and now he faced kitchen sink. Sad about his own fortunes, gloomy at the times, was he ever tempted to go for broke and show himself?

Leo Marks, who wrote Peeping Tom, was a kind of analyst. He had worked on codes and cyphers in the war, and he was the original of the character played by Paul Scofield in Carve Her Name with Pride. [Not quite, Scofield played an SOE agent. Leo was much more like the coding expert played by Michael Goodliffe] Powell remembers him as a very intelligent, impenetrable colleague: he always turned up on the director's doorstep behind a large, freshly lit cigar. They worked together on a life of Freud, in part because Marks was the son of a psychiatrist. That plan was well advanced when John Huston announced what was to become Freud - The Secret Passion. (This was the second time that Huston stole Powell's thunder; Powell had planned The African Queen, with David Farrar and Bette Davis.)

So one level of research was pushed beneath the surface, and another scheme popped up. That is nearly enough Powell's brisk description of how Peeping Tom came into being. But he also told me once that he fancied the first project had given Marks an opportunity to 'study' him, so that the second venture was the fruit of what the writer had learned about the director. Did Powell think that in 1960? He is hard to pin down now to any of the sub-texts in Peeping Tom. Yet he has admitted that he always identified with Mark's anguish, and he may have had half a feeling - like Welles when he looked at Herman Mankiewicz's script - that there was an image of himself just beneath the surface.

Marks could have seen something Powell has since owned up to: 'I felt very close to the hero, who is an "absolute" director, who is conscious of and suffers from it. He is a technician of emotion. And I am someone who is thrilled by technique, always mentally editing the scene in front of me on the street, so I was able to share his anguish.' He might also have noticed that Powell's claims of deep feelings never disturb a robust, bantering aloofness.

The tension in all his work, between restraint and emotionalism, is never more evident in life in the way he leaves his own emotional life vague. Susan Sontag's diagnosis is that Peeping Tom acts out the alienation from life that the camera instils. I suspect Powell would reject that association if it were put to him directly - in which case we have to let it emerge indirectly. The special force of Peeping Tom is the torrential, pained, yet somehow placid self-awareness of Mark Lewis. Powell himself is closer to the bristling stiff upper lip of Lermontov in The Red Shoes, in love with his dancer but determined not to spoil things by admitting it. As the surrealists knew, love yearned for has a purity always blurred by the common act.

Of course, Leo Marks the code-breaker made the photographer-hero a close anagram of himself. But Powell dressed Carl Boehm for the part in his own old clothes - to this day, Powell wears the tan-coloured wind-breaker that makes Mark so discreet. That and his dufflecoat clash with Boehm's German accent and a forlorn melancholy that everyone except Powell hears as a Peter Lorre homage. The clothes-swapping is a detail Powell only conceded in conversation. Far more declaratory was his original decision to play the father who has trained Mark in fear and photography.

Powell's explanation of that is always made straight-faced. He realised that he would need a child prepared to have a lizard dropped in his bed. Could he ask that of an unknown professional? Instead, he cast his own son, Columba, confident that the child would not be distressed by the experience if the father was close at hand. If I add that Columba has grown up to be a mural painter who once presented his father with a portrait of dragons, you can see how delicately we sit between art and life. And just as there is an airy unworldliness in Powell, so that he might never have pondered on any of these decisions, so he is also a master of innuendo whose Peeping Tom can scarcely utter a line without leaving extra meanings in the air.

The father is a professor of psychology: he wrote a shelf of books as if he were Freud. He experimented with his young son's fear, and filmed the terror. It is movie gobbledygook - as cheerfully ignorant as the spectacular mind-scaping of Spellbound - that sees Mark growing up as a polite young man who can lapse into exotic pathology whenever the plot requires it. The professor is more wizard than scientist, and Mark's illness is an irrational as the search for perfection. Powell's own home-movie appearance as Dad - with a voluptuous and much younger stepmother for Mark - involves his careful adjustment of the focus on the camera filming him. No one being filmed knows the focus is out, but wizards know and can pick on the very detail that mocks the scheme of illness in the instant of tracing it. In addition, on the tapes, it is Powell's own voice - sinister but suave - that comforts and goads the child. This one cameo in Peeping Tom is more chilling than all Hitchcock's appearances added together.

The psychology within Peeping Tom is too naive to be Powell's central concern. In very few of his films is motivation worked out thoroughly. His people react helplessly to violent impulses - the closest to complex behaviour is the way the David Farrar character in The Small Back Room needs a bottle of whisky in the house if he is to stop drinking. The perverse relief of a fetish denied but kept in view is just as vital an antagonism in Mark's imagination. But the ordeal in Peeping Tom is not investigated; it is simply enacted through the cinematic process. Most notable of all, Mark does not want to be cured. At one point, he asks an alleged specialist about his prospects, and dismisses the not unreasonable prognosis. He would rather be apotheosised in spectacle than made whole in life.

Ordinary life is as scarce in Powell's films as it is in Hitchcock's. But whereas Hitch aspired to its anonymity, Powell flinches from what it represents. The evidence of that is his inability to film anything for its own sake, for what it is, in a documentary spirit. Seeing for Powell is always the means to expressive insight. Not one of his films is reconciled to the world of appearance. Vision is always a tribute to imaginative will or nobility. Seeing, therefore, is the mark of an inspired disturbance.

That is what separates Powell from an analysis of voyeurism. Whereas Rear Window is a nagging attempt to see and ascertain facts, Peeping Tom is a pursuit of transcendence. The Red Shoes shows this need for fiction. Just as it prepares us for a ballet that might actually be performed on a stage, so the dance that transpires is only possible on a movie screen. All Powell films realise the impossible to vindicate an absurd faith in imagination.

So the collection of eyes in Powell's films is not a catalogue of seeing, but a testament to private belief in revelation. Powell's eye sings with the exultation of romantic imagination: it swoons with perspiration in The Small Back Room; it flutters with anticipation in the peep through the curtain in The Red Shoes; it plays with magic spectacles in The Tales of Hoffmann; and in A Matter of Life and Death the eye that slowly sinks in anaesthesia is an ecstatic yielding to unconsciousness. And yet .. the film is also full of jokes about the camera as a sexual limb which, in Powell's uniquely disjointed artistic personality, do not detract from the reverence that judges the work of Mark Lewis as being as worthy as Lermontov's in The Red Shoes.

The filming of the several whores and models in Peeping Tom that precedes their being impaled on the erect, pricking front leg of the tripod is too schematically sexual to be felt erotically. But it is nasty because of our complicity, the brusqueness towards the women and Mark's creepy concentration. Take those things together, and you have the recurring threat to all Powell's films: the preferring of art to people. Even when he is cheerful, Powell can be garish or mystical. In his darker moods, there is a rapacious misanthropy. He encouraged screwed-down acting that suddenly bursts out with unvanquished feeling. The coherent development of emotion leaves him uneasy: he was never an especially sympathetic director of actors.

The world of Peeping Tom is so full of spying and malice that the one untainted character, Helen (Anna Massey), seems stilted and perfunctory. Otherwise, everyone is the projection of Mark's nervous conviction that they must be watching him. The whores are cliché sluts who may see his timidity. The cops are rough heavies. The newsagent's shop is riddled with hypocrisy and meanness. The film director - as blind as actor Esmond Knight - is fatuously bad-tempered.

Most baleful of all are the red-headed women that crowd the film, like furies in a bloodshot dream. Helen has red hair, and there is the sketch of a love affair between her and Mark. Elliott Stein has 'there is no more moving doomed love affair in any film' (Film Comment, September-October 1979). But this love is only talked about not felt. They are at the childhood stage represented in Un Chien Andalou (and Buñuel, incidentally, is Michael Powell's favourite director). It is as cursory and unlikely as the thought of a cure for Mark. Powell's films rarely seemed persuaded by love: The Small Back Room is one exception where the war, a tin foot and every dread of failure is erased by the tranquil lust of Kathleen Byron. More often, 'love' is the polite, Tory disguise for overwhelming imaginative involvement. The nearest Powell comes to real love is between people somehow sworn to restraint, or unable to see one another - like the radio romance between David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death.

Apart from Helen, who is also a narrative device, Peeping Tom has a gang of copper-headed harpies. At the film studio, the hapless Shirley Ann Field - cream-sherry coloured for the occasion - is the ultimate idiot actress. In the photographic studio, there is a languid redhead, arresting in profile, but defaced when she turns round by a scar on her mouth. One of Mark's victims, dancing for him in an empty studio, is the Moira Shearer who leaped like a flame in The Red Shoes. But now she is reduced to a trite, jazzy routine, without conviction or magic. Powell and Shearer may have joked about the changed circumstances, but it is poor thanks for one of the most uninhibited performances in a Powell film. The casting alone could make you think that Powell was depressed when he made Peeping Tom.

That still leaves the most potent figure in the film: Helen's mother, played as another redhead by Maxine Audley. The part was meant for Pamela Brown, a close friend of Powell's who appears in I Know Where I'm Going and The Tales of Hoffmann. Pamela Brown was unable to play the role, so Maxine Audley substituted. According to Powell, the two actresses plotted together and Audley turned up on set with her own hair dyed red. To believe that, you would have to accept that Powell, on the spur of the moment, saw the similarity in Audley's hair and the whisky the mother drinks. However it occurred, the meditative resentment in the close-ups of her red hair suggest dried blood and the crimson hues of the dark room.

The mother is blind but knowing. She has guessed Mark's guilty secret before anyone else. She preys on him and penetrates his sanctum. Far from being a figure of wisdom and charity, she is rivetingly morose and ominous. Her blindness is a denial of Mark's mission; it also represents the corrosive despair of a world without 'vision'. She seems protective of her daughter, but the film gives no comfort to anyone wanting to trust parenthood, and the mother might as easily want to keep Helen the prisoner of an invalid's self-pity. There is one astonishing taunt and double-meaning, when Helen is going out with Mark and mentions the doorkey, whereupon the mother, half-soaked in whisky, murmurs 'Your key needs working and my lock wants oiling.' It is amusing only for an instant. Then it seems like a glimpse of sexual self-hatred and a heartfelt digression in a supposedly suspenseful film. Just because no one in 1960 could be very coherent about why Peeping Tom was disturbing, does not lessen its saving reproachfulness.

Peeping Tom had a dreadful reception in Britain in 1960. But few critics had ever appreciated Powell's films. Today, Powell declares that after it no distributor would trust him. I wonder. Anyone awake must have known since 1940 that Powell's regime was unorthodoxy. Peeping Tom was jerked out of sight, like any scandal in England. But did it really warn or persuade the industry not to touch Powell again? He made another film next year, The Queen's Guards, his third commercial flop in a row. I suspect that Powell's withdrawal was the result of box-office failure and of his own disenchantment. He need not have suspected it at the time, but by the mid 60s perhaps he himself saw the affinity between Mark's exposure and his own splendid disaster.

You can lament the ideas unfilmed, and share Jonathan Rosebaum's feeling that Peeping Tom is the only New Wave picture ever made in Britain - because of its interest in movies, presumably. But I cannot detect any such modern sensibility in the film. It has no naturalness, no spontaneity. Rather, it is an offshoot of German film of the 1920s, the most profound influence on Powell's work apart from that of Rex Ingram, his first mentor. In the 1978 booklet, Powell, Pressburger and Others, Ian Christie seems to relate Powell to the first frenzy of camera-identification in the New Wave. He quotes Powell (from a French interview):

'I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, sixteen years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of the cinema. I have worked actively in the cinema for the last forty years and I live equally in the future, since I'm profoundly dissatisfied with what has been done so far. As I've already said, I'm not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through the cinema; everything that I've had in the way of education has been through the cinema; insofar as I'm interested in images, in books, in music, it's all due to the cinema.' (Midi-Minuit Fantastique, October 1968).
[Hear Michael at the NFT]

If that is New Wave, then it only demonstrates how much Romantic obscurantism there was in early Godard. The Sontagian ambiguities of photography are not especially relevant to Powell. Peeping Tom is not an analysis of voyeurism, or even a conscious reference to cinema. I rather doubt that Powell has ever been an avid film-goer: that alone separates him from Godard. But against the historical tradition of impersonality in the British cinema, Powell understood the auteur theory before it was ever formulated. He was less auteur than tyrant. That's where Ingram's example is so important. Ingram had been a Hollywood giant. But he left America when he was thwarted by MGM over Ben-Hur and sought to make his own kingdom, first in Nice, then in North Africa.

The Archers, and the skill we can assume in Pressburger, allowed Powell independence. The wonder is that his refusal to compromise survived as long as it did. His whimsical, idiosyncratic attitude to the war is a triumph of English tolerance and of Powell's private progress. But we would be stupid to suppose that he did not earn and court enemies. One day, he chose to act as if they were too much for him. Yet only because of his innate determination that nothing but art mattered. Thomas Elsaesser's excellent review of The Tales of Hoffmann in Brighton Film Review (1968) does make a satisfactory link between this man and Godard: 'The nihilism of Powell's films is so through and relentless that it forces him into desperate aesthetics, where the only moral stance is the hopeless affirmation of a doomed innocence, born from too much knowledge and self-awareness about the events of our world.'

How well that covers the struggle of Mark Lewis, Helen and her mother; or of Lermontov, Victoria Page and the shoemaker in The Red Shoes. Michael Powell teaches us to look past the money and technology in movies to the profuse sensation of the screen. Like Lermontov, Powell has tried to ignore reality and personal relationships. His terrible secret is that he sees movie as a Wagner Opera or a pagan ritual. Peeping Tom is a grim, tongue-in-cheek, rueful work, but it burns, whisky red, like a sacrificial pyre.

Powell is a dedicated extremist. It is very hard to pick any of his major films and point to areas of compromise. Far more often, it is remarkable that he pushed things past censors and financiers, and won such acceptance from audiences. For so great a Romantic, everything is a matter of life and death at the edge of the world. It was the everyday perspective of realism that chafed Powell. He and his characters live for red-letter days, whatever the cost. By far the fiercest crisis is that of the person who strives to make art of the tumult around and within him. To dismantle a bomb, to win a reprieve for love, to know where you are going, to spirit aristocrats from under Chauevlin's nose - those are all kin to art.

But in Powell's work, the three nobles heroes are Hoffmann, Lermontov and Mark Lewis. (Prospero would have made a fourth if ever The Tempest had been filmed.) All are men whose attempt at reality has produced a wintry or sad contempt for its claims. Lermontov remains the essential Powell hero: un-English, uncompromising, lyrically rude, ecstatically restrained and plunged in visions. Nevertheless, he screeches with agony at the end of The Red Shoes. Mark is not as tight-lipped. But his willingness to talk does not permit self-pity. Leo Marks and the research on Freud may account for the circumstantial psychological background. Powell's own vocation explains the tools of movie-making and image-taking. But Mark lives for art and death. His own life needs only his ghostly commitment: The Peeping Tom is watching himself.

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